Turtle Bay

Longtime U.N. booster rips Ban Ki-moon

Stephen C. Schlesinger, an ardent U.N. booster and erstwhile defender of Ban Ki-moon and his low-key diplomatic style, has written a bruising assessment (pdf) of the U.N. secretary-general’s leadership. Writing in the liberal World Policy Journal, Schlesinger portrays Ban as a hard-working, well-meaning diplomat who has struggled tirelessly to grapple with the world’s most pressing ...

Stephen C. Schlesinger, an ardent U.N. booster and erstwhile defender of Ban Ki-moon and his low-key diplomatic style, has written a bruising assessment (pdf) of the U.N. secretary-general’s leadership.

Writing in the liberal World Policy Journal, Schlesinger portrays Ban as a hard-working, well-meaning diplomat who has struggled tirelessly to grapple with the world’s most pressing problems, including human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and climate change. But he concludes that Ban has failed to rack up concrete achievements. He also asserts that the U.N. has become a weaker organization during the first three years of Ban’s five-year tenure.

Schlesinger’s article shows how Ban’s standing continues to suffer, particularly among opinion makers in the United States and Europe. But Ban retains support among the five permanent members of the Security Council, who will decide whether he serves a second five year term. And officials from China, which will have a major say in whether Ban serves out a second term, have privately rallied behind Ban, viewing him as the target of unfair criticism from the West.

Obama administration officials and Democratic congressional staffers have told Turtle Bay that while they might prefer a more charismatic and activist U.N. secretary general, they view Ban as one of the most pro-American U.N. leaders in history and that he is deferential to U.S. concerns.

Veterans of the Clinton administration also have unpleasant memories of their dealings with former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who frequently clashed with the United States.

Schlesinger, a fellow at the Century Foundation and the former director of the World Policy Institute, maintains that his own discussions with Obama administration officials reveal growing skepticism over Ban’s stewardship of the U.N. body and a tendency to sidestep it on important issues:

"American disenchantment with the United  Nations seems to stem from a more general feeling that the body is simply not acting as forcefully as it should be in the global arena. Obama clearly desires a UN leadership he can work with, along the lines of President Clinton’s close relationships with the United Nations during the Kofi Annan years. According to some Obama Administration sources, the body has become a very different place under its new leader, Ban Ki-moon. The organization appears to have grown weaker. Like all former UN chief executives, Ban possesses only moral power, not economic, military, or political authority. Still, moral power alone, in the proper hands, can be remarkably persuasive. But Ban’s tenure thus far, three years into a five-year term, has been viewed as both lackluster and ineffectual. This may be unfair-and in many ways it is an overdrawn assessment-but it is the prevailing view, especially among leaders in Europe, the United States and Latin America, though less so among Ban’s fellow Asians."

Schlesinger writes that Ban’s shortcomings diminish the prospects that the Obama administration, one of the most pro-U.N. governments in a generation, will use the world organization to help solve the thorniest international problems:

"Further, among some Obama aides, there remains a profound uneasiness as to whether Ban can really fulfill his gauzy vision of change, given his checkered track record and his retiring personality. He talks a good game, but what can he really accomplish? And while Obama has certainly placed his own stamp on the United Nations, what if he were to wish to offload other responsibilities on Ban? Would Washington rest its national interests on so slender a reed?"

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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